Ceci n’est pas the Active Voice

June 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

My brother volunteers as a reader of audiobooks. His latest assignment was a methods text –  Research Methods in Social Relations, 8th edition (Geoffrey Maruyama and Carey S. Ryan, Wiley, 2014).  In the last chapter, on p. 511, he read this:

The use of the first person and the active voice is now preferred over the third person and the passive voice. The past tense is used when reporting the past research of others and in describing your own procedures. The present tense is used to discuss results currently in front of the reader ...

Political Ideas, Political Tactics

June 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on the previous post claimed that political correctness is “bullying people.” The comment ignored most of the content of the post, which was about the tactic of using the term political correctness as a strategy used by bullies divert attention away from their bullying. The comment also confuses two dimensions – ideas and tactics. It’s a common enough mistake. Even the Wikipedia entry doesn’t keep ideas distinct from tactics.

Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct), commonly abbreviated to PC, is a term which, in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.

The first sentence refers to ideas, as did my previous post (“comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”). The second sentence describes a rhetorical strategy: when you want to vilify something (in this case political correctness) go to extremes. Find examples of the most extreme version of the ideas and the most extreme tactics of its supporters. Once the phrase has become a pejorative, anything that can be labeled as politically correct must automatically be wrong.

But most people use the term to refer not to tactics but to ideas or values (e.g., “New York values”). To say that replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 is politically correct, or supporting gay marriage, or hoping that the Washington Redskins pick a different name, or thinking that women, Blacks, and LGBT people ought not be excluded from syllabuses or TV shows and that Donald Trump shouldn’t call women bimbos – these and a host of other issues, all of them labeled as politically correct, have nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with ideas and principles.

Bullying is a tactic, not an idea, and it is used by supporters of all sorts of political ideas. Anti-abortion activists scream into the faces women going to abortion clinics. Some even firebomb the clinics and make death threats against practitioners. In fact nowadays, thanks to the Internet, people from all over the political spectrum make death threats and use other vile tactics that all fall under the category of bullying.

The “political correctness = bullying” conflation illustrates another aspect of muddied thinking – “motivated cognition”: our feelings about the ideas affect our perception of the tactics. It’s like the football fan’s perception of pass interference or holding or some other infraction – whether we see a player’s tactic as legal or illegal depends on which side we’re rooting for. The classic 1954 study “They Saw a Game” documents this kind of motivated cognition among students following a controversial Dartmouth-Princeton football game.

More recently, in 2012 Dan Kahan and his colleagues did a similar study – “They Saw a Protest” (pdf here). All subjects were shown the the same video of protesters and police. Some were told that the protest took place outside an abortion clinic and that the protesters were anti-abortion. Others subjects were told that the scene was a military recruiting center and that the demonstrators were protesting the Army’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (still in effect in when the study was done).

Subjects were told to imagine that they were on a jury and that the video was key evidence in a case where the protesters were suing the police. One of the basic questions was whether the police had violated the free-speech rights of the protesters. On the whole, there was little difference between those who were told that the protest was at an abortion clinic (49% said yes, the police had violated the protesters’ rights) and those who were told it was at a recruiting office (45%). That’s on the whole. Separating the subjects according to political views revealed sharp differences in perceptions.

The measure of the subjects’ political orientation was not the usual liberal-conservative dimension but instead a space marked off by two axes: One axis is the Hierarchical-Egalitarian. Egalitarians think we should strive for greater equality in society; Hierarchicals are OK with current inequalities of race, class, and gender. The other axis is Individual-Communitarian – basically about the role of government. Is the government interfering too much in our lives (Individual), or is it not doing enough to improve things (Communitarian)? Translated into more conventional political categories, the Hierarchical and Individual would be conservative, the Egalitarian and Communitarian would be liberal.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Hierarchicals (solid lines in each graph) were much more likely to say the police were at fault when the protest was against an abortion clinic than against a recruitment center.  As they saw it, the protest at the military recruitment center – that was dangerous so the police had to move in. But when the protesters were anti-abortion, how dare the police bust up a legitimate protest. For the Egalitarians (dash lines), those positions were reversed. Basically, if we agree with the protesters, we perceive the police as violating their rights. If we disagree with the protesters, the police are just lawfully doing their job.

Politics shaped perception on an even more factual question: had the protesters blocked people from entering the building? Again, when the protest was at the recruitment center, Egalitarians saw the  protesters as relatively benign, Hierarchicals saw them as a threat to pedestrians and others. When the protest was at the abortion clinic, those perceptions flipped.

But wait, there’s more, and it gets worse. Not only does our ideology influence what we see, but we fail to recognize that connection, assuming instead that we are merely calling them not just as we see them but as they objectively are. At the same time, says Kahan, we are quick to spot the motivated perception of people we disagree with. The result is that we think those we disagree with are not just wrong but that they are acting in bad faith, deliberately misperceiving a peaceful protest as a violent mob or vice-versa.

For Political Correctness

June 4, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Political correctness.  Donald Trump scoffs at the idea, but he loves the phrase.  It’s what he uses to avoid questions and dismiss his critics. This strategy is what Sykes and Matza, in their now-classic 1957 article on “techniques of neutralization,” called “Condemning the Condemners.” Sykes and Matza were describing the thinking that juvenile delinquents use to justify their lawbreaking. Condemning the condemners neutralizes the rules against crimes, for after all, if the authorities are imperfect – corrupt, venal, unfair, etc. – then the laws they are enforcing can be ignored.

The delinquent, in effect, has changed the subject of the conversation in the dialogue between his own deviant impulses and the reactions of others; and by attacking others, the wrongfulness of his own behavior is more easily repressed or lost to view.
Similarly, Trump. Are his ideas and policies racist or sexist; are they intolerant on religion? Ignore that question, because the real problem is the idea behind the question itself:

MEGYN KELLY:  You once told a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.. . . How will you answer the charge . . . that you are part of the war on women?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.
The strategy plays well among Trump’s supporters. When Trump said that the problem was political correctness, they interrupted with cheers and applause.

But there’s something to be said for political correctness. Part of that creed might be summed up as “Don’t be an asshole, don’t be a bully.” It’s the same impulse towards decency as the dictum that the role of the press should be to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If you’re doing it the other way round – comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted – you’re probably being an asshole and a bully.

Political correctness sides with those who are most easily victimized and stigmatized, especially when the basis of that stigma is something that the afflicted have little power to change – race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, physical appearance (height, weight, beauty).

A Washington Post story (here) about a case of bullying highlights these aspects of political correctness. It was on the “Post Most” list that week – the most popular stories among Post readers– probably for the same reason that the NRA loves stories about people using guns to defend themselves against bad guys. In this case, political correctness could have saved a life.

Emilie Olsen was adopted from China at nine months. She grew up in southwest Ohio. In fifth grade she became the object of jeering for her clothes (“Chinese people don’t wear camo”). In sixth grade this expanded to include accusations about her sexuality (a fake Instagram account “Emilie Olsen is Gay”). In seventh grade she was showing signs that the harassment was having its intended effects – her grades dropped, she became depressed, she cut herself. In addition to the online bullying, her tormentors posted graffiti in school bathroom stalls:  “Go kill yourself Emilie.”

She had some friends and supporters. Their demand to the bullies to “stop messing” with Emilie turned into a brief fight. Her psychological condition grew worse, and less than two months later, she got her father’s gun and killed herself.*

Her parents have sued the school, which of course denies that bullying, if there even was bullying, had anything to do with her death. The parents may not be able to prove their case legally. Still, if the school had enforced some of those principles the Trump-minded** dismiss as political correctness, Emilie Olsen would probably still be alive.

*The case illustrates another tenet of liberal thought – that guns are dangerous. A gun in the house is much more likely to be involved in an accident, a domestic fight, or a suicide than in defense against outside predators.

** Butler County is heavily Republican.  In the Republican primary in March, Kasich won the county. But Trump did much better there, losing by only 2 percentage points, than he did in the state as a whole, where he lost by 11 percentage points.

Breaking the Rules of Writing

June 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ah, litotes: “a figure of speech which employs an understatement by using double negatives.”

 I recently came across this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith.*

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

Orwell, in his famous essay on politics and language, decries the “not un-“ construction because it tries to make the banal sound profound. But it also sacrifices clarity. Saying what something is rather than what it is not makes it specific. Also, we grasp a positive more quickly than two negatives. (See here, here, here, or here.)

Galbraith uses “not without” because he wants to understate. Saying that yes wealth does have some advantages makes those who would deny that idea seem even more ridiculous. 

The negative construction in the punch line –  “has never proved widely persuasive” – uses the same strategy of understatement. He could have said, “but nobody really believes it,” but Galbraith’s phrasing – the “widely” is crucial to the wit of the line –  implies that there are actually some people foolish enough to believe the myth.** 

Who are these people? Identifying them is not important, which is why the passive voice (“the case. . .has often been made”) here works perfectly well.

In a sentence of 23 words, Galbraith uses two constructions that I usually try to avoid – the passive voice and the double negative – but here they work wonderfully. Apparently, the rules don’t apply when you are using irony, especially when you are using it to undermine the essential folly of “the conventional wisdom” (a term coined by Galbraith, by the way). In this case, that bit of conventional wisdom is the idea that money can’t buy what’s important in life – happiness, for example, or elections.


* Howard Wainer uses a slightly different version in his recent book Truth and Truthiness.

** A famous Sophie Tucker quote expresses the same idea; “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” As with the Galbraith quote, its wit depends on some people having tried to make the case to the contrary.